Depression : Asperger's and Depression Often Occur Together


The spiky patterns of tropical foliage. The pale pink petals of cherry blossoms framing Washington landmarks. The gleam in the eye of a mischievous dog.

Budding shutterbug Amy Wirtala captures her world in photographs. But when her mom, Kathy, looks at the 19-year-old's pictures, she sees something else: hope. It was a sentiment that was hard-won for the Wirtalas, who live in Spotsylvania County. In 2001, Amy was on the precipice of adolescence and began withdrawing from people. She had trouble in school, and struggled to make friends.

Her parents, Kathy and Joe, began trying to find help for their daughter. They went through a litany of evaluations: educational, psychological, neurological.

Answers were few and far between. And Amy continued to struggle. She became suicidal. When she was 14, doctors diagnosed Amy with Asperger's, depression and anxiety. Asperger's disorder is on the autism spectrum, and typically impairs a person's social and communication skills. Depression is common in adolescents with Asperger's, and a recent study found that as many as 70 percent of youth with Asperger's also have depression.

But while the diagnoses often go hand in hand, they are not compatible. People with Asperger's often have trouble recognizing emotions in others--and in themselves. Because most methods of coping with depression involve recognizing your own feelings, Asperger's can exacerbate the mental illness.

The diagnoses helped Amy's family understand what was happening. But they didn't provide immediate relief.

When she was 16, Amy tried to kill herself. It was the first of four suicide attempts in two years. Watching her daughter get her stomach pumped after the first attempt was "heartbreaking" for Kathy. But that event led the family to the Virginia Treatment Centers for Children in Richmond. "They saved her life," Kathy said. "They taught her coping skills to use at home when she's really down."

At the center, Amy learned to recognize the signs of depression and how she could overcome the feelings of hopelessness.

"You feel like you've failed in life and you can't enjoy your life when you have depression," Amy said. "But I've moved past that."

And for the past two years, Amy hasn't considered suicide. It's a milestone that she and her family revel in.

"It's like a victory," Amy said. "I'm really proud of who I am and what I've accomplished."

She was last hospitalized in October 2010. Since then, Amy has discovered a passion for photography. She first picked up a camera when she was 10, to take a picture of her mom on vacation. Amy still remembers the feel of the camera in her hands, and the thrill of snapping a shot.

As she recovers from her depression and anxiety, Amy again turned to photography. She takes travel pictures and is starting her own pet photography business.

And when VTCC wanted a way to showcase the talents of people with mental illness, they turned to Amy, making her the first artist in their exhibit titled "Through Their Eyes."

"This exhibit is celebrating her wellness," Kathy said. "Amy was no longer isolated. She was getting out

in the world. These photos reflect her journey outward."

Amy's photographs lined the walls of the center's lobby through mid-June. She also has work on display at the Fredericksburg Photography Show at the Dorothy Hart Center through Sunday.

Amy is self-taught, but she just started taking a photography course at the community center. She hopes to go on to school at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and to continue building her business.

"Good can come out of a bad situation and I'm an example of that," Amy said. "Now, I feel blessed, lucky to be alive. I feel like God has blessed me with family, friends and talent."

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973

(c)2012 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)

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